Flatbush, New York, New York

Adela Called Adelva: Notes on Flatbush

Diane Exavier May 27, 2019

They were shouting his name, Saheed, marching down Nostrand Avenue. I could hear them from my third-floor apartment, on the corner of Lenox Road: Saheed, Saheed, Saheed. Without thinking, I threw on the closest pants and sweater I could find, wrapped my hair in one motion, and burst out the door.

That was six months after I had moved back to Brooklyn. Since my return in 2017, I’ve have found myself in a wavering state of depression as colonizing eyes disembark the 5 train with me at Church Avenue and lego-like high rises loom above my head on Albemarle Road. Transitions are never easy, especially when they involve homecomings that are not as romantic as they are fraught with anxiety and stress. There are several reasons why I feel the way I do and I can clearly name every single one. It doesn’t stop the feeling. If anything, it increases my helplessness: having all the language of prognosis, but no vocabulary to cure. I am grieving my city.

What I love so much about Flatbush has nothing to do with its access to public transportation or proximity to Prospect Park. It’s the palpable atmosphere of relation, shared knowledges that refuse to remain foreign to each other, characterized by:

opacity in description

social and economic exchange

and rooted errantry.

I believe Flatbush to be a city of relation, where you can order a Jamaican beef patty stuffed with mozzarella cheese or pick up your herbal deodorant at the Islamic health store. There is a fluidity of language, flavor, colors, and time that stretches across this particular swath of the borough. You know exactly when you’re not in Flatbush anymore, by street signs, sure, but more acutely by the shift in the quality of light.

Flatbush Avenue runs the entirety of Brooklyn, from its northern tip at the Manhattan Bridge down to its southern end at Jamaica Bay, near Kings Plaza. But when I say “Flatbush,” that’s obviously not what I’m referring to. Flatbush—the Little Caribbean I know and grew up in—specifically lands just south of Prospect Park down to Flatbush Junction, where Nostrand and Flatbush Avenues meet. I was raised at Flatbush Junction, which I still believe to be one of the major crossroads of the borough, a literal X marking a major transfer point for transportation, as well as creating a geographical distinction between the more “city-like” geography of Brooklyn (buildings and brownstones) and the suburban feel of lawned homes stretching into Midwood, Mil Basin, and beyond. As more and more gentrifiers have been priced out of Park Slope and Prospect Heights, they’ve landed in Flatbush, specifically Prospect Lefferts Gardens, which they are quick to name as if the particularity provides some kind of clout.

Prospect Lefferts Gardens was named so in 1968 by the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association (PLGNA), some centuries after the Dutch settled in the area, having displaced the native Canarsee population to create the town of Flatbush. It would be a dangerous perpetuation of settler-colonial violence to pretend that the place I call home was carved out of the collective rib of some intrepid Dutch settlers and not through the violence of European aggression. To avoid a linear frame, I would describe the history of Flatbush as stretching (not long), existing prior to the arrival of the Dutch. The small dot in Flatbush’s matrix I am most connected to is the time and spirit when Flatbush turned into the Little Caribbean: a landing point for people from every island of the Antilles. That geographical and metaphorical archipelago, also born out of great violence and erasure, found some Chaotic way to repeat (and renew) itself along Flatbush Avenue. Landlocked, but not too far from bodies of water (the East River and Jamaica Bay on either end), people decided, with reasons spanning from exile to opportunity, to arrive in this neighborhood. It is a funnyhouse mirror image of the abysmal arrival Édouard Glissant names in Poetics of Relation:

…the third metamorphosis of the abyss thus projects a reverse image of all that had been left behind, not to be regained for generations except—more and more threadbare—in the blue savannas of memory or imagination.

I think of the Caribbean wave of immigration to Flatbush as a kind of “reorientation of arrival,” its connection to that originating abysmal encounter on the shores of the Atlantic breaking open a portal for even more arrivals for immigrants from Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and more. It’s not that Caribbeans made Flatbush, it’s that our living here continues to regenerate possibilities of making Flatbush. So, when I say “opacity in description,” I mean the movement between referring to space and spirit. I mean Rogers and Bedford and Nostrand, but also Haiti and Trinidad and Pakistan. Borders cannot hold Flatbush, which is why I never tell people I live in Prospect Lefferts Gardens or that my mom lives in Midwood. These are finite, bordered spaces, whereas Flatbush is an ethos, a spirit. I live where and how I am: open, sun drenched, out late, with the quickness, here to stay.

The social and economic exchanges of Flatbush recall the Haitian lakou, the Jamaican yard, and most marketplaces of the Caribbean. Encounters and interactions happen out in the open. You haggle, you pout, you laugh, you yell for everyone to see. You buy your maxi pads with your gallon of milk and your lightbulbs. Everyone knows you are living.

The lakou is a communal living system in rural Haiti, originally established by formerly enslaved people facing the new reality of building free lives after the Revolution. Having survived catastrophe, they commenced a new kind of work assembling lives constantly moving between survival and living. The lakou, which literally translates to yard, embodies a philosophy that neighbors are extended family, sharing physical and spiritual spaces that create paths between persistence and existence. You work with the people around you so that you can rest, sit in the sun, and enjoy the day. Jamaica finds its twin in this concept with the yard, similarly set up as a communal space of social encounter and exchange. And while I’ve never been to Jamaica, I walk up and down Nostrand every day and can confirm that the yard is very much alive: loud and fragrant with the smell of grilled corn and jerk chicken.

All around Flatbush are Korean grocers, adjacent to bodegas, who sell everything from fresh fruit to root teas to cured fish. Most of them are open twenty-four hours, just in case you need parsley at 3am. Fruit and vegetables populate bins on the street while a small ramp creates a threshold to even more produce, canned goods, bottled liquids, boxed products, and more inside. This is another mirror image of the Caribbean, as Asian presence and life on the islands has always been a fact. In Flatbush, they become vendors of relation, participating in a Chaotic and imperfect peace: selling produce from the islands making it possible for people to cook up home.

On the last day of every year, my mom makes anywhere between three to six trips to a few of the Korean grocers on Flatbush in preparation for soup joumou, the national dish of Haiti, celebrating the country’s independence and bestowing good luck. Joumou (pumpkin), banan (plantains), yum (yucca), and thyme are all on the annual list of things to pick up from what she refers to as the Chinese. It’s a strange collapse/conflation of language, identity, and function. The Haitian Kreyol word for Chinese is Chinwa, which is how one would refer to a Chinese person. But the name for the place of business where you buy produce is the Chinese, like the supermarket is the market, like evaporated milk is Carnation milk. There are, of course, real problems with the way the term generalizes by way of intentional misidentification and how that misidentification is based on visual assumption. Everyone knows that Asia, like Africa, is a continent and that not all Asian people come from China. The racial dynamics between Asian and Black people living and working in cities together become even more complicated when you think about any of the readily available examples of conflict involving the two groups, most recently in this very neighborhood during the summer of 2018 when an Asian owned nail salon on Nostrand Avenue near Martense Street was forced to close after protests stemming from an incident involving workers assaulting two Black patrons with a broom. The incident sparked outrage, but also much needed conversations about the reality of social and economic dynamics between different groups of people inhabiting a shared space.

I’ve moved back and forth to Brooklyn from New England for the better part of seven years, trekking along the I95 every summer or every other weekend for any of the many reasons NYC will always provide. When I moved back for good (for now) and finally summoned the courage to tell my mom I was moving into my own apartment, she seethed in disgust: “Lenox? I didn’t raise you to live on Lenox.” Her nose was turned all the way up as she dropped her head in disappointment, unable to discern why, after all the sacrifices she had made, I would insult her by setting myself up in a place that I had, in her mind, classed out of. But while my mom comes home to the rent-stabilized Flatbush apartment we’ve lived in for almost thirty years, NYC has become a totally unlivable city.

Rents are through the roof. Public transportation is crumbling before our very eyes. The money that runs this city is almost successful in its mission of pushing out the very people that have made and continue to make this city what it is. And that’s just the economic state of things. Racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, and police violence are just some of the social and political factors, along with economic precarity, that make NYC a city where people have to focus more on constantly surviving than simply living, which doesn’t make sense given the amount of wealth pumping through its avenues. We should all be living in this city. And yet, just a few are able to, while the rest of us work to find ways to compromise and cope.

Close to the train, close to groceries, close to people who look and sound like me: these were the highest items on my list for apartment hunting. I was searching for a lakou because I was raised right. And by, “right,” I mean I was raised realistically. No one is self-made. Any success I have been able to individually achieve was made possible by a supportive network that ensured my ability to live. If I would have any chance at living in New York now, I’d have to place myself in a similar environment. What my mom couldn’t understand was that she might not have raised me to live on Lenox (as she imagined from her memory of late 80s/early 90s Brooklyn), but she did raise me to thrive. And if I was going to avoid a life of merely surviving (scraping together monthly payments for a home I could barely afford; or even worse, compromising my way through an intimate relationship for economic security), I would have to move back to Flatbush, where I could still picture doing both: surviving, yes, but also practicing life.

The roots of the Flatbush I grew up in are beginning to wither, drying up because of an exhaustive environment that refuses to nourish it. Increased police presence, gentrification, hyper-development with lack of local investment… It is alarming to walk down Linden Boulevard and count, between Flatbush and Nostrand, the number of new buildings going up too fast to keep up with, knowing that residents in existing apartment buildings are not getting new coats of paints or laundry facilities where they live. Each of these buildings boasts the latest amenities: rooftop decks, gyms, parking garages, yoga rooms—all the trappings of private living in a neighborhood where publicness has always been an important component of life. The lakou and the yard both rot when the new meeting place is the highest floor of the newest apartment complex where security cameras record every coming and going and security codes keep a tight grip on entrances and exits. How are you supposed to encounter strangers until they are no longer strangers when your gym is in the basement and your laundry room is on the first floor and your groceries are delivered to your door once every two weeks? Headphones in ear between the lobby and the subway station, it is becoming increasingly impossible to live in public, to exchange goods and sounds and gripes with neighbors. In lieu of physical space (which, ironically, many older Flatbush apartment buildings built in the 1930s actually have), the dream being sold is that of personal, private space. You can now live your own life in Flatbush, disconnected from any of the number of lives blankly walking past you as you rush home from the Q train at Parkside.

I suspect, and fear and mourn, that this ultimate amenity was at work when Saheed Vassell was shot and killed by police on April 4, 2018 at the intersection of Utica Avenue and Empire Boulevard in Crown Heights (northeast neighbor of Prospect Lefferts Gardens). In a neighborhood that has always had a troubling history with law enforcement, the mysterious, yet all too familiar events surrounding the death of Saheed Vassell are rooted in what should have been a totally avoidable police intervention.

The story of Arthur Miller, a Crown Heights community leader who was killed by police on April 14, 1978, helplessly echoes. On the local news, the same sentiment kept getting repeated regarding Vassell: “Everybody knew him,” just as everyone knew Arthur Miller forty years prior. Video footage of Vassell showed him repeatedly brandishing an object in the motion of a gun. It was later revealed that the perceived gun was in fact a piece of a welding torch. He worked as a welder. Vassell suffered from mental health issues, which complicates the imaginative exercise of how to quell what may have been perceived as a dangerous situation. But a complication that wasn’t at play in Saheed Vassell’s death was his place in that space: he was not strange. His family still lives mere blocks from the spot where he was killed. His father had seen him just a few hours before his fatal encounter with police. People in the neighborhood knew him. People in the neighborhood also know not to call the police as a first resort to handling any community matter.

That day someone who did not know Vassell, who could not recognize him, called the police because of something that looked strange to them. They were welcoming in forces of the state to restore a kind of order that was legible to them, failing or refusing to realize that such an order has always demanded the nonexistence of Black people. How do you render an image, see a person, live in a city when you’ve invested so much in a force that systemically denies people of their humanity?

People who have historically invested in whiteness and keep it alive by perpetuating its myths are using the power of the state as concierge for the convenience of private comfort. There is nothing more discomfiting than a disruption to personal reality, the anxiety that you might be strange because you are strange to someone. Cities are spaces where those disruptions, varied and repeated, turn into a cacophony as melodious as the bubbling whirlpools and crashing waves of the sea. Bathed in strangeness together, inhabitants of cities learn to allow themselves to be carried with the current.

The children of people who have only ever known private space or moved away from cities into suburbia are now crawling into urban spaces for the first time or making prodigal returns wanting it all: the birthright of privacy along with the veneer and convenience of publicness.

“I want access to the park and the train.”

“I don’t want to encounter people between the park and the train.”

“I really just want to walk my dog.”

Flatbush and its surrounding neighborhoods are now packed with people who have no desire or idea of how to live collectively, in cities, with people: avoiding eye contact, sidestepping neighbors, shipping in goods. They deny exchange while consuming everything. They refuse the social contracts that invisibly keep things running. They disavow relation.

In Haiti, History, and the Gods, Colin Dayan calls forth the work of anthropologist Drexel G. Woodson, whose book Tout Mounn Se Mounn, Men Tout Mounn Pa Menm deeply considers the social and cultural aspects of land ownership and tending in Northern Haiti. The title directly translates to All People are People, but All People Are Not the Same, a Haitian proverb that sings the spirit of relation: an insistence on humanity, an allowance (and fact) of difference. In the book Woodson interviews a woman named Erosemène Delva, who explains the concept of “gift-holds” and how they work in the Haitian countryside. She says:

In the countryside, gift-hold is something that comes from good friendship, good neighborhood, kinship, male-female relationships. A gift, I should say. An odd gift, I’d say…

She goes on to explain the particulars of transaction and exchange between herself and the men she is in intimate and spatial relationship with: washing their feet and performing other acts of bodily care (which are seen as signs of intimacy and respect) in exchange for claims to their land, or “gift-holds.” Like people, not all gift-holds are the same, the claims and rights to property varying as much as relations do. She continues to describe the elements of exchange between herself and these men, which includes the most intimate of relations. Delva plainly lays out the terms and conditions of these social contracts: a thing for a thing, what lies between her legs as valuable as what lies under her feet—their likeness rooted not in economic value, but in daily tending and a wealth that reflects the respect for vitality. The exchange is most essentially concerned with the mutual taking care of life:

The man’s got to at least give me gift-hold rights and claims [and] help me to work [the plot]. I didn’t say work it for me. Help me work.

The plots of land she works (and gets help to work) are called gardens and she, a garden-woman. Her title is bestowed upon her and defined by the multiplicity of her relations. Instead of being “placed” with one man (plasaj [placement] being another form of intimate partnership in the Haitian countryside where people who are not legally married live, raise children, and work land together), Madame Delva tends to many gardens, giving and taking what she can from each. In the Haitian countryside, private disavowal does not work as a tool for freedom. Instead, people make intentional decisions about who and what they will commit themselves to in the light of the sun, fully knowing what is always at stake: the body and the land—and between the two, the spirit.

I live nowhere near a countryside and am about as city mouse as a person can get. I love my janky train stations and indoor plumbing. I really love spending too much time at the 99 Cents (and Up) Store. What Madame Delva’s words leave me longing for is some repeated or remixed version of her partnerships in Haiti right here in Flatbush: a contracted commitment that, above all personal desire or emotion, invests itself in care and the stewardship of life. I want a lakou, yes, and maybe even a garden, not for my own private use, but for the bodies and the city and, ultimately, the spirit.

Make sure to check out this essay in full at (after)care, an exhibition curated by No Longer Empty Curatorial Lab at Kings County Hospital. The exhibition re-envisions a former emergency waiting room as a creative community space of remembrance, possibility, and celebration of care within and beyond hospital walls. (after)care opens June 1st with a reception from 12 - 5 pm. At 12:30 pm, representatives from the Lenape Center will hold a ceremony to welcome visitors to the land of Lenape, Lenapehoking. (after)care is curated by the 2019 No Longer Empty Curatorial Lab in partnership with Kings County Hospital and is open Wednesdays - Sundays, 12 - 7 pm from June 1st to June 23rd, 451 Clarkson Ave.


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